Thursday, August 18, 2011

Swan Lake. Why the Anti-Gorbachev Coup Failed. (1991-2011).

Russian version of this post is here.

Swan Lake is imprinted on the mass consciousness of Russians for many different reasons. One of them is that it was played continuously on national Soviet television on that fateful day twenty years ago today, 19 August 1991. And because it helped to defeat the hard-line coup.

This was when a group of hardliners staged a coup attempt, putting Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer retreat in the Crimea and declaring a state of emergency in Moscow.

Tanks rolled in, but the soldiers weren't provided with portaloos or hot food. Yeltsin defied the 'state emergency committee', GKChP, or the 'junta' as it was quickly called. The American ambassador publicly warned world leaders not to rush to recognise the new rulers as events were unlikely to work out the way the junta was planning.  Liberal newspapers and radio stations were shut down. And national television played Swan Lake, again and again.

Later that day we saw the infamous press-conference of the GKChP with the acting president mumbling and his hands obviously shaking. Alexander Bovin, the prominent political commentator and former advisor to Khruschev, Brezhnev and Andropov, stood up and asked a question, which many who watched the press-conference, including myself, have since thought of as the moment of truth, the moment when the bubble burst. Ignoring the heavies on the praesidium, Bovin addressed a junior member of the committee, Vassily Starodubtsev, chairman of the peasants' union of the USSR. 'Vasya,'  he asked, 'tell me, how did you end up with this lot?' Laughter rolled through the hall – and it became clear that there was nothing to fear, this was a hopeless bunch, an operetta junta. (Video of the press-conference is at the end of this post, Bovin's question is at 37 min.)

The coup quickly collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated five months later.

It wasn't just Bovin's courageous wit, but, of course, the courage and defiance of the Russian people that lead to the coup's failure.  This is where Swan Lake comes in.

Those who ordered it to replace normal programmes must have thought that the stern music and the ordered dance patterns of the classic Bolshoi production would instill an obedient frame of mind in the nation. They must have forgotten that Swan Lake had by then acquired different, sometimes farcical, associations. One of these is from Leonid Gaidai's 1966 comedy 'Kidnapping, Caucasian Style'. A young student is kidnapped to be married to a local big-wig somewhere in the Caucasus. Her boyfriend comes to the rescue with the help of a local man and his pet hooded crow, Hamlet. In the final episode the friends sneak into the 'dictator's' house pretending to want to kill him according to the custom of blood revenge, but in fact only scaring him into giving himself up to the authorities. They ignore the authority to establish a new authority. The scene has Swan Lake on TV as the background.

Those who lived through the August coup in Moscow often complain that the Monday, 19 August, spoiled the music forever. I do too, sometimes. And as soon as I do, I remember the other Swan Lake, the comedy that helped to defeat the coup.

Here is the episode (the gun is loaded with rock salt): 

Кавказская пленница

This is The Swan Lake finale performed by an American company:

And here is the Emergency Committee (GKChP press-conference) on 19 August 1991. The Bovin question is at 37 min. into the clip:


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